Uncomfortable questions for the arts

For some time now I have been paying attention to conversations in the arts concerned with how we justify the arts in our lives, how we make the case for the arts to others, and why the arts should matter to anyone in general. There is such a lack of clarity in these discussions that we don’t seem to have gotten very far in making sense of the questions themselves. There are plenty of good reasons for caring about the arts, but our confusion is so deeply anchored. What do we mean by art? Who are the artists and why? What things are included in the arts and what things are excluded?Can research into the arts even make sense if we have no clear idea what the arts refer to? Can we have a conversation about the arts and the words themselves have only indeterminate meaning?

For instance, are the arts something fictional, like a unicorn that we have cobbled together from real parts, horns and hooves, but taken as a whole only point to a fantastical creature of the imagination? Yes there is music and yes there is painting, but is there such a thing as art? The arts? Do we need art to make sense as something other than a phantasm, or a useful fiction, to be able to advocate for it? Does that fabrication invalidate our efforts? If we think hooves are dandy and horns are fabulous, does it mean we categorically need the idea of unicorns to make our case more secure? Can we be invested in unicorns without any special attachment to horns and hooves?

We just don’t have any clear sense of where we are going in our discussions about the arts, and our lack of clarity seems fundamental. What clarity we have consists in arbitrarily drawing a line around specific attributes and excluding others from our definition. As Barry Hessenius asks in a recent blog post,

When we use the term, do we mean, exclusively, or even principally, artists who work in the fine arts fields of music, visual art, dance, theater and more contemporary art forms such as film or media?  Do we include craftspeople?  Do we include amateurs?  Do we mean to imply that the term artist somehow embodies professionals, or those who make their living from their artistry?  Or do we include within the term anyone who creates any kind of art on any level, including both those who self-define as artists and those who, for whatever reasons, do not? Does the term refer to aspiration, success, occupation or otherwise?  Is excellence in execution a prerequisite to claim the title?

A case can be made in answering all these questions either “yes” or “no”, and that merely points to the ineradicable confusion and intrinsic ambiguity of the question. But if a question can be answered with justification either positively or negatively we have to also ask whether the question itself is a good one. Do we need a definitive answer for what makes art art, what gets included in the arts, and who the artists are?

Perhaps it is our ambition to ask these questions that is misplaced. Faulty answers to a question don’t just mean the answers were inadequate but occasionally also that the question itself has flaws. We can ask bad questions. Some questions are so misguided that there simply are no answers that could count or that counting itself were continually up for debate. Words can have the appearance of a question but not really ask us anything productive. What, then, are the flaws in asking for an unambiguous definition for art, the arts, and artists?

If a question only leads to confusion is there a point where we turn from the chase after a ‘better answer’ to different questions that have answers we can more plausibly get behind? Are we faced with a Copernican type situation where after centuries of mapping out the visible cosmos with the earth at the center, needing to correct for more and more inconsistent data by more and more elaborate justifications, we instead turn to a point of view that has the sun at our center and the earth revolving about it? Are we looking at art and the arts and artists all wrong? Are we trying to understand them as things at the center of an explanation rather than as satellites orbiting some other as yet undetermined foci?

An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)

An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)

I want to let that sink in before I give you my thoughts. These are uncomfortable and even threatening questions for many. The more we are invested in chasing unicorns the harder it will be to give them up, despite the practical difficulties. We are not often daunted, as humans, by the impossibility of our dreams. The things we value are aspirational as well as purely practical, and the pivot upon which our beliefs and behavior turns does not always depend on knowing the difference. That too seems worth considering.

As Barry concludes in his essay,

There are a thousand questions about how to possibly define the term ‘artist’, why do it, why not, and what it might mean. Where to start? Where to stop?

I don’t know, but increasingly I think it at least has bearing, even if unintended and unrecognized, on what we do and how we do it, and we thus ought to examine the question.

Barry is brave enough to ask this, but I worry that some of our brightest minds are closed to accepting the challenge. I am hoping that our courage for the truth makes even these uncomfortable issues worth addressing. That is my unicorn.

I welcome your thoughts. My own ideas will be forthcoming, as time permits.

Peace all!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Imagination, metacognition, Wittgenstein. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Uncomfortable questions for the arts

  1. mrcuttime says:

    Thanks Carter. I like how you and Barry are asking the existential questions with an eye toward arriving at some resolutions. I hope many of us professional artists have been asking these same questions that remain dinosaurs hovering in the corner. Let me share some of my own conclusions. Answers will always depend on who we’re asking. But art (almost anything) and The Arts (meaning fine arts or classical arts) have been largely devalued by popular culture. The remaining older generations still value them, but fewer are able to get out to appreciate and support them, so there is a reckoning taking place as boomers, Gen-X and millennials have had little or no relevant experiences to cement the values we as pro artists live by. (Hint: some of them are curious to know what we live by, but want this info on their own terms, such as YouTube, hands on, or as drinking games, etc.)

    The arts have been democratized (appropriated, fragmented, ground down) to the point Americans (and the NEA) celebrate the “creative spirit” and participation as the goals. In part, we are the victims of our own success: technology, commercial art and tradecraft have enabled most to FEEL like an artist at something and go pro part-time. This is also a consequence of the general distrust of experts, institutions and authorities (of all kinds) as part of The System. And frankly, there is NO art more meaningful than that which we create ourselves. Creatives however DO seek inspirations, but are less likely to pay for it unless it’s of “HELL YEAH” quality.

    Given this new reality, the new economy for pro arts may depend on our choice to “sell out” and go commercial (tradesman), remain arts-centric and “in the tower” with like-minded colleagues, or find a reasonable (for us) balance between the two. I hope that any professional will be versatile enough to create popular works that let them also pursue their purely artistic works. I saw a recent article pointing out that “artist” used to mean “craftsman” (200 years ago in Europe), until it was romanticized to mean “starving artist”.

    It seems to me that humanity (and art) is defined by its ambivalence; that we alternate or rotate in our willingness to experience, to express and to be. To reset the context for the classical arts (I’m in music), we must see ourselves in the INSPIRATION business, rather than the art business. This is another, fulfilling way to serve our art, AND pay the bills with the new granting opportunities to make windows into our world by answering burning-but-unspoken questions about WHY and HOW our art can matter to them, in the most practical terms and experiences.

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